Massively Overthinking: How accountable should MMOs hold players for out-of-game toxicity?


Brendan’s discussion with CCP Falcon at EVE Fanfest last week included an interesting chat about out-of-game harassment and whether gaming companies had an obligation to do something about it. Falcon said it wasn’t healthy for a studio to “overstep” its “jurisdiction”: “I think our jurisdiction likes firmly within EVE Online, and I think that of people do break the few rules that we have then we should come down hard on them, especially in cases of harassment or real life threats.”

But over the years, we’ve covered multiple MMO studios who’ve made it their business to utilize content like Tweets and YouTube videos – Blizzard and SOE/Daybreak come immediately to mind – to make disciplinary calls inside their games. And that leads me to today’s Overthinking, proposed by MOP reader Sally: “What is your opinion on in-game vs. public out of game toxicity?” she asks.

“A game company has no rights or responsibility to police Discord, Reddit, et al. The company should not ban in game someone because they are bad (misogyny, racism, homophobia) about OOG people in OOG public forums. But what about people who are obviously ‘bad’ about in-game people/groups? I get the not wanting to police the world and certainly resist the nanny state more than most. But what if someone says something offensive about players/employees on a very public Reddit or Discord? It’s not a free speech issue; in the US you can say most anything. But the game company certainly can determine who can play its game. Do they make more money by letting these people play? I guess at the end of the day, CCP is correct, but it does not feel quite right.”

Doesn’t it? That’s what we’re discussing today. How accountable should MMOs hold players for out-of-game toxicity? Where exactly is the line?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is a tough one. I see game companies trying to avoid responsibility for this kind of thing a lot. For endorsed streamers and esports atheletes, I understand the need to react and police people who another face of the company. For your average, everyday player? That’s where things feel murky at best.

Ethically speaking, let’s think about games as a playground. Are people fighting on the playground? The developer should do something. Did people take something from the playground and cause trouble with it off of the playground? Yeah, the developer probably should still do something. Did the people meet on the playground and then go elsewhere to cause problems? Maybe the developer should do something, especially if that attitude or the results start to affect the playground. Did something happen to someone who spends time on the playground but it doesn’t follow them back to the playground? Nope, no need to do anything.

Admittedly, I may also be looking at this from the perspective of a teacher. I know businesses just want to cover their assets and focus on games, but the last thing we want is for the government to get involved. Self-regulation is best in the long run, and simply trying to cover your buttons is a short-term plan. Putting in some extra credit work shows the rest of the world that you can be trusted to do what’s right.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I wrote a piece on this topic last year in the wake of EVE Online’s record-breaking political betrayal story, the one in which alliance leader GigX effectively threatened to cut off the betrayer’s hands and attempted to find his real-life home address. How much toxic or antisocial behaviour should an MMO studio tolerate from its community, and what exactly qualifies as part of the community? Do interactions on Twitter count as part of your game’s community? Facebook? Reddit? What about Discord, Twitch, YouTube, or TeamSpeak? Absolutely, they do.

The internet has evolved considerably since MMOs first came along. We now commonly merge our online and real life personas, and every online game community extends outward through a wide range of communication methods and locales. In some MMOs it would be unrealistic to expect players to take part in the community without using out-of-game services, and harmful interactions that occur outside the game client or official forums can still very much represent interactions between two players and in respect of the game.

CCP Falcon is right that studios trying to police the internet would be overstepping their jurisdiction, but I’m not asking studios to police the internet – just their own corners of it. Every studio needs to decide exactly what kind of community it wants to build and what kinds of player it does and doesn’t want to be part of that community. Whether abusive behaviour that breaches community standards is discovered in-game or on Twitch or Twitter is completely beside the point; if you find cancer by accident on an unrelated scan, you still cut it out. I firmly believe that it is a studio’s responsibility to actively curate its community, and the hands-off policies most companies have are no longer fit for purpose.

so spoopy

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have to admit I share Sally’s reflexive discomfort with the idea that studios would be monitoring the wide expanse of social media at all, even for a good purpose.

On the other hand, if you’re an asshole on social media – especially if you’re being an asshole about my game and my other customers on social media – you’re probably not somebody I’d want in my game because you’ll eventually cost me money, and if I’m a game company, I care a whole lot about my money.

There will always be exceptions, of course; if your game is one giant dogwhistle for griefers and you have openly embraced that type of culture for years, the toxics aren’t costing you money; they are your core constituency. The same can be said of social media platforms like Twitter, for that matter.

That isn’t the case for most MMORPGs; a toxic reputation and playerbase cost them dearly. So yep, do what you need to do, MMO studios. Clean it up.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The problem is that in this particular spot, the big problem is rules vs. principles and the corollary between behavior in one place and the person behind it. It’s easy to argue that, say, Blizzard shouldn’t ban you simply because you made a forum post somewhere that someone dislikes. But at the same time, if you’re known for spouting violently racist comments all over the place and then you start playing Overwatch, odds are low that you’re going to suddenly be a model citizen. Heck, odds are low that you’re even a model citizen before that. But equally problematic is proving that it’s the same person making all of the same posts, and policing everything related to a person to see the sort of conduct that they tend to engage in… and creating a set of rules that everyone can adhere to that’s based on fair standards, not personal judgement calls, which can always be wildly different.

You might say “oh, so you’re saying this isn’t doable,” but the reality is that it’s the opposite of my feeling. I think this is something companies do need to consider. I think that the guys being utter garbage fires outside of the game and technically avoiding any rule-breaking in the game are basically playing Sir Bruce, to use ancient jargon; they’re not actually breaking the rules, but they’re just avoiding breaking the rules so that you can’t technically ban them. It’s the equivalent of someone walking right up against the do-not-cross line and then walking along it with the defense of, “but I’m not over the line, you can’t get mad!”

The reality is you should get mad. And the reality is that these auxiliary places – Discords, subreddits, and the like – are a part of what is visible about the game. The EVE subreddit is part of the forward face of EVE. Wowhead is a part of what people see about World of Warcraft. And it’s very difficult to put limits on what counts as part of the forward face of the game, but the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. It just means, well, it’s going to be difficult.

Companies ultimately get the communities that they put the effort into cultivating. To kick on EVE a bit, this is a game that put its marketing forth, time and again, as “be a jerk, be a shark, be cruel and cold.” You don’t get to then act surprised that a lot of the people who are attracted to that are actually just like that in real life, and when you see evidence of how much toxic behavior spills out into public forums you have an obligation to decide if that’s acceptable. Because if you’re not setting the rules, you’re letting other people set them, and even if the rule is “you can only act this bad in the game before getting banned,” I assure you that people will find ways to act worse if you know the limits.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): If the toxicity is in relation to the game then yes, I feel that studios do have a responsibility for dealing with it even if it is not exhibiting in the game itself. Is it in a medium that is connected to the game, such as Discord, Reddit, Twitch, and such? If you wouldn’t allow it in game, then don’t allow it in the community regardless of where the community is at. For the out-of-game infractions, a first or second offense could be more related to the media it presented in: Suspend or ban folks from there. Let the community know that too many infractions in any community medium can result in in-game consequences as well. Harassment of any player should definitely be handled regardless of where it is happening! I don’t care if it is done in private media such as email; if harassment comes about from the game, the studio should take an active role in ensuring that behavior isn’t tolerated. And believe me, if it is happening outside the game, it is likely happening inside the game as well.

Toxicity is just bad for a community, so unless those are the type of people you want in your community than you need to take action to create and enforce the community you want. For instance, the Code of Conduct on my private servers read: “The server will not tolerate any harassment of other players or moderators. Any attack on another person in-game, on Steam group, on the LFS site, on social media, via email, or anywhere else relating to this server will result in immediate removal and ban from the server and the Steam group.” Yup — I don’t care if you are emailing the person privately, I am not going to tolerate it in my community. I also emphasize that any Patreon related to it will not be refunded.

Your turn!

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